Why Is Good Design So Difficult?

Golf has been described as a game where you try to put a very small ball into a even smaller and remotely distant hole, with instruments singularly ill adapted for the purpose. 
While a degree of difficulty is desirable in sport, it’s safe to say, we don’t want to gamify everything we do to by adding levels of challenges. On the contrary, we spend much of our lives individually and collectively working towards the opposite objective. How to make it easier. Easier to shop, to commute, to acquire and consume. Easier to access, easier to use. Making things easier has always been the holy grail of progress, the end game of science and technology and of design.

So why is good design so infernally difficult? Why do we feel at so many points in our lives, and during our everyday routines, that a product or a service has been really badly designed? Just this morning we discovered that the water filter in our fridge needed replacing. This can only be done by moving the cupboard sized fridge away from the wall, and unscrewing a plate behind, and then following nearly non-existent instructions in the manual, which are definitely not for the model we own. We decided to call in the professionals. Samsung recommends that the filter be changed every 6 months. Would you pay £80 every 6 months to a plumber to keep your fridge running. No, me neither. Which is why we’re going to video record the plumber and ensure we can do it ourselves next time round. Computer hardware manufacturers solved a similar design problem a long time ago, by putting the USB ports and network points in front of the device, rather than behind, and colour coding the ports.

But surely you must see instances in your daily lives that make you want to pull your hair out, simply because of the thoughtlessness of a service or a product? Some are unintended such as the walkie talkie building and the hitler tea pot. But others are just examples of callousness in design, while still others are simply relics from an older world that need a makeover.

In fact this lethargy is probably at the heart of any number of products and services which were fine a few years ago, but you simply would not design them the same way today. Consider home security. Some of the leading brands offer you the choice of “key-holder” response and “police response” at different price points. But why not a combination? Why can’t I opt for police response when I’m on holiday? Why does the alarm signal go to the provider first and then as a phone call to me? Why can’t it trigger a message to an app on my phone, with an option to turn on one or more video streams from inside the house? If you had to design a home security system from scratch today how would you design it? Chances are you’ve walked down a road where an alarm has gone off, in a home or a shop, and you’ve just walked past it, because everybody around is just ignoring the noise and getting on with their lives.

A friend of mine had an instance of an alarm going off while he was on holiday and as I was the nominated person the alarm company called me and I went round to his house at 6 AM on Sunday morning. As it turned out, there wasn’t much going on but a friendly neighbour popped by and  we looked around the house together. The neighbour found a way to get into the house because he discovered that a back window was open upon entering the house the alarm went off again. At which point the alarm company called on the land-line inside the house. The neighbour picked up the phone and he told the alarm company that he was the neighbour and he was with the key-,holder and that everything was alright and incredibly, the alarm company said in that case it was fine and hung up. Needless to say my friend changed the alarm company as soon as he got back.

Today you would probably design something like this, which allows you to see what’s going on in your house. DIY web cams aren’t the answer though, as they’re susceptible to be hacked. The right combination of institutional and personal information sharing is key.  You might also enable some community and collaborative features which allows the local community to get involved – after all they’re the ones putting up with the alarm shrieking, so they have a vested interest. Not to mention that they run a risk of a similar burglary.

Tony Fadell, the designer behind Nest and now at Google, calls this the challenge of habituation, the way in which we get used to how things are. (Like ignoring the neighbours house alarm). This is a brain feature which allows us to make somethings second nature so we can take our environment for granted without having to process everything we see all the time. The inertia, or lethargy for businesses to change a product or service stems from our habituation process. But also baked into this are network effects, accepted semiotics and social norms. The QWERTY keyboard could arguably be improved on, but the network cost of billions of people relearning how to type is mind-boggling. But the Android app Swype is a great example of a marginal design improvement. You do not want to try and improve universal symbols such as the red-amber-green of traffic lights or the signs for male and female toilets. Yet, we’ve all seen the attempts at creative improvements on toilet signs and I’ve certainly scratched my jaw on occasion trying to figure out the right sign when it’s been too abstract, or when it’s at the bottom of a flight of stairs in a pub where I’m already not at my thinking best.

Having said that, there are hundreds of products and services which could and should be better designed. Increasingly because of the way technology evolution is creating a change in our behaviour. A simple example is business cards, for those of you who still use them. Previously you would try to perhaps make your business card memorable, or be creative about how it conveys your key messages, especially if you weren’t working for a well known and recognizable brand. Increasingly though, you may want to ensure your business cards scan well, mobile apps for scanning business cards becomes a mainstream behaviour. This means avoiding vertical cards, and preserving clarity of the data in an OCR situation. The way Apple Pay or Uber scan your credit/debit cards into your mobile phone apps, is leaps ahead of earlier apps where you had to manually enter the information.

The design challenge of today, is that as products get smarter, and software gets baked into every product, how can we ensure that the experience is a good one. This isn’t simply about traditional interface design, because many products won’t have a traditional ‘user interface’ i.e. a screen of some description. In fact the user interface is now a combination of interaction, transaction, experience and environment design. You have to be aware of how the user is engaging with the product through it’s lifecycle – from unwrapping and setting up the product through to it’s ultimate replacement or disposal – and also how it engages with the environment. Parking sensors in a car is an excellent example of how the product engages with the environment and provides the feedback and engagement with the user so you know how close you might be to the object behind your car. But my earlier example of the fridge filter is a clear example of not considering the environments. I would think most people keep their fridges with their backs to the wall and probably wedged in between other appliances. As such accessing the back of the fridge is difficult and potentially dangerous if you’re moving a large fridge yourself.

One of the best principles for redesigning objects is to re-imagine their evolving purpose. Here are two examples. The first is the ambulance. Traditionally thought of as a vehicle to transport people to hospitals in the shortest time, and designed accordingly. Based on some research, it became apparent to the redesign team that a better way to consider the ambulance as a mobile unit for delivering energy care and medical services. I.e. the treatment begins in the ambulance itself. This made the principles of the redesign clearer and in turn led to a series of changes which dramatically changed the concept of the ambulance design. The second example is the wheelchair. Again, traditionally seen as a way for people with walking disability to gain the freedom of movement,  wheelchairs have always been visually  overpowering. Now, viewed as a way of giving the same people a normal social life, the redesign principle is that when you see somebody in a wheelchair, you should notice the person first and not the wheelchair. In fact even the standard wheelchair symbol is getting a redesign, in New York.

Both of these examples highlight the need for empathy, for research and for re-imagination. Sometimes the hardest of the three is the empathy and this is what makes great design so difficult. Even though plenty of design principles are now chronicled, perhaps none as well as those of Dieter Rams.

dieter rams design principles

In these times of digital transformation, the big opportunity for most organisations is to use software and smart technologies to redesign their products and services in a way that dramatically improves customer engagement, solves the problem or creates delight. The opportunities for rethinking and redesigning are immense, and if you don’t do it, the chances are that there’s a start up somewhere reinventing the design of your products.


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